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Verdi: Attila (in concert): Soloists / Chelsea Opera Group / Andrew Greenwood (conductor). Cadogan Hall, 11.3.2006 (ED)

Attila, King of the Huns: Clive Bayley (bass)
Uldino, a young Breton, slave of Attila: Paul O’Neill (tenor)
Ezio, a Roman General: Jonathan Summers (baritone)
Odabella, daughter of the Lord of Aquileia: Nelly Miricioiu (soprano)
Foresto, a knight from Aquileia: Wynne Evans (tenor)
Leone, an old Roman: Mark Beesley (bass)

One can take two views on Verdi’s Attilla. Either you write it off as a botched work, or you don’t.
Writing it off is the view largely upheld by accepted music criticism, which puts it down as one of the most crass products to emerge from the composer’s galley years. With a plot concerning warriors and the capacity of individuals to exact revenge, Verdi had strong material to work with, but composition of the work was beset by problems caused by his librettists and a wide variety of objections brought forward by the Venetian censors.

Such things however, did not dissuade Verdi from his determination that the work should not lapse into routine. Traditional criticism will tell you that despite his best efforts to the contrary the work does occasionally succumb to a slightly ‘oom-pah, oom-pah’ rhythm here or a predictable ritardando there. Historically, critics have pointed also to the work’s noisiness as a reason for further kicking when it’s down.

Well, I agree, Verdi is at times quite unrestrained in his orchestration, but that’s no reason to scorn it further. The subject calls for it. What could be more inappropriate than the mighty Hun portrayed in a prissy, over-fastidious manner? And whilst I am taking accepted criticism to task, how about putting routine into context. The work contains predictable elements it is true, but so too do any number of Rossini operas (sorry, Gioacchino, but they do). I just do not understand why such objections have been levelled against Attila.

Alright, I also must admit that the work doesn’t contain many showstopping arias, but it does have its dramatic moments and elements of great nuance in it which fix it more firmly to Verdi's later style than to other earlier operas. There is also subtlety of orchestration and word setting to be found throughout the score along with assured dramatic pacing.

Strangely perhaps, for an opera whose solo roles are dominated by male parts, the evening was billed on the casting of Nelly Miricioiu as Odabella. The role affords its greatest opportunities in the Prologue and Act I, and here the most dramatic impressions were made. Voices, being ever changing things, age in different ways – some well, others less so. It might be argued that Nelly Miricioiu no longer possesses a freshness of voice, but she still brings a keen intelligence to her interpretations. Act I, scene 1, sees Odabella in a wood on a moonlit night weeping for her dead father, and the slight hollowness in Miricioiu’s voice brought this home, and contrasted to great effect with her earlier courageous and heroic tone.

Clive Bayley, as Attila, projected the drama of the role strongly through confident use of text and intelligent musicality, to find not only aspects of the warrior but also some introspection within the part. As a direct compliment to Bayley’s Hun, the Ezio of Jonathan Summers, was without doubt the most sensitively phrased portrayal of the evening, often showing character through beauty of tone too. Mark Beesley left an almost Wagnerian imprint upon the small role of Leone, an old Roman.

Of the tenor parts, Wynne Evans’ Foresto, being much the larger, left a greater impression. The role offers opportunities for a singer of some standing (who is at ease with Italianate line and heroic projection) to shine forth. Though individual phrases were well shaped, some uncertainty of pitching marred the overall result and made the characterisation perhaps more tenuous than might be wished for.

Underpinning the evening was an orchestra of some presence and discipline, yet supple enough of tone to bring forth plaintive and atmospheric playing when required. The expressive chorus took their roles well too, although the men had the greater burden, and they shouldered the crowd scenes with some gusto. Conductor Andrew Greenwood displayed an acute ear for orchestral sonority throughout, as well as first rate dramatic instincts with his pacing of the score.


Now that I think of it, without such excellent qualities unassumingly in place, how much more routine this performance might have seemed. But thankfully, routine is anathema to the Chelsea Opera Group’s approach, and because of this they were able to show just how unsfairly maligned Attila has been. In helping to readjust critical opinion (in my eyes at least) the Chelsea Opera Group can consider the evening very much a success, and be justly proud of their musical achievements too.

Evan Dickerson




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